This commentary addresses issues of representation in its delegative and political as well as sign-making senses intrinsic to bottom-up histories of state power and the meanings such power precipitates. Brokers as representatives in a political sense ideally reveal the dynamics, but also limits, of state power because, as Eric Wolf noted long ago, brokers by definition never work simply to resolve the contending interests they mediate but must also perpetuate them if they want to retain their own strategic positions. At the same time, in ethnically stratified societies such as Mexico and Guatemala, brokers also often come to represent in a semiotic sense the very oppositions they seek to negotiate through their literal embodiment of the affinities and antipathies that their relations with those above and those below help to institutionalize. Teasing out these political dynamics and ethnic images requires careful attention to institutional structures and the construction of national, ethnic, and ultimately inter-individual identities, as well as to events in real (that is, document-based) historical time. Methodologically, the writing of such cultural histories of power thus entails not necessarily privileging ethnographic “structure” or historical “event,” but rather developing (often ethnographically derived) conceptual models to guide inquiry into historical documents.

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